Talking the Beautiful Game

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I’m sitting down to write this massively hopped up on a combination of nostalgic documentaries from the BBC, previews from some of the best football writers around and late night WhatsApp conversations with mates remembering where we were when Gazza scored THAT goal, where we were when Gazza MISSED that goal…where we were when bloody Marcus Rashford wasn’t even born yet.

I’m ready. I’m back believing, England are only gonna go and win this Euros! And then I think about it again, I’m supposed to be picking my 5 favourite England players for Art of Football, who’ve put together a brilliant make your own t-shirt design and the section on their website that they’ve stuck it on is called ’50 Years of Hurt.’

Ah.

Here however, are 5 England players who’d I’d pick for my t-shirt, who’ve made me dream and make me keep coming back. To the England national football team. 

Paul Gascoigne

By 1992 and the Euros, I was a hardened cynic, openly cheering Danish chances down at the Youth Club but in 1990 I was a believer, running home from school in North Dorset, bedecking myself in a hand-me-down 1986 shirt, painting my face and wrapped up in a Gazza-mania. He was my hero at that moment and as a whole, it was a tournament that taught me all I needed to know about the world. Italy was cool, Roger Milla got rhythm, Rene Higuita gave me ideas beyond my station as an aspiring goalkeeper and Claudio Canniggia taught me to put elastic bands in my hair.

 

Gazza though, taught me that football was pain. You didn’t always win, the world wasn’t always just and no matter how bloody happy you looked and how good you were, something could happen that changes everything and as soon as Lineker looked to the bench I was gone. That was it. That yellow card. Everything became clear, the world was no longer a mystery. 

Gary Lineker

Obviously, pre-internet, I didn’t have much football to go on out in the country. I had Shoot magazine and annuals, I had Saint & Greavsie, the odd televised game and I had that second hand 1986 England shirt. In all of that, pictures of Linekar - short shorts, left wrist bandaged, banging in goals in the Mexican sun were everywhere. My shirt didn’t have a number on it, but when I imagined it did, it was a number 10.

And then, in 1990 he was there in the flesh, well, on my telly in the living room with the orange crushed velvet curtains – scoring goals, making it look easy. He really was as good as the pictures made out.

 

It wasn’t until 1992 and I was there at Wembley, on a school trip stuck awkwardly between my Dad and my primary school girlfriend who was trying to hold my hand, when he blew that penalty against Brazil. I realized footballers were fallible yet again and no matter how many times he cracks a funny on Match of the Day, I can’t shake the notion that he was our best and we still couldn’t have nice things with him in the team. We’re English.

David Platt

Probably a strange choice but to me, plodding, dependable and boring David Platt reminds me of being English. He is the English team of the 1990s writ large, a gifted if not spectacular midfielder who quietly plugged away behind the scenes and ultimately found appreciation in the places you’d least expect it – on Football Italia, a show that kept that 1990 notion of mysterious Europe in my head, teaching me about teams with weird kits and colours and fans and pink newspapers – Bari, Juventus, Sampdoria.

 

David Platt was also the neighbour of a son of someone my Uncle knew in the Midlands and forced to kick a football together in a garden somewhere on my summer holidays, that fact, and the promise of an autograph impressed me greatly.

 Plus that goal against Belgium, the ball lingering far longer than it should have done from Gazza’s free kick and then Platt spinning and smashing it in – that was probably the first time celebrating a football goal felt like the best thing in the world. The reason why I run down 30 steps and jump in to a bundle of players celebrating a last minute 4-3 winner away at Barnet, aged 35, still chasing that feeling.

John Barnes

I’m not going to claim that I saw John Barnes rapping with New Order on ‘World in Motion’ and that was it, I was in to alternative music. Oh no, it took other Top of the Pops appearances from Vic Reeves and the Wonder Stuff and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine to teach me that. 

But, that video – Barnesy rapping, kicking a football about with Bernard Summer in shirt and shades taught me that football could be cool. John Barnes was cool, he spoke in a voice that I could barely understand, not that I imagine he could have understood my accent back then either but in the 1990s, who really knew how to say isotonic anyway?

There’s probably other reasons why I still drink a bottle of Lucozade before every football match I play in, but let’s face it, there’s probably not a better one. I drink it because John Barnes told me too. John Barnes kicked a can in a bin and said it was isotonic. That’s why.

 

Peter Crouch

Bear with me. No hang on a minute. I’ve got a point to make here! Peter Crouch definitely isn’t the best player who’s ever played, there’s no way he’d make a 5-a-side team alongside Barnes, Platt, Lineker and Gascoigne … well, unless he’s any good between the sticks?

 He definitely didn’t look like a future England star when, at Uni in the town we used to take the piss out of him at Portsmouth, believing the winds wiping through Fratton Park dictated which way he played, blown all over the shop.

But when he did finally play for England, after putting in the hard yards and sticking with it despite all the jibes, he only went and did a stupid dance when he scored. Imagine playing for England, scoring a goal and doing the robot. It was brilliant, it was stupid and it was fun, exactly what I would have wanted to do. Only I wouldn’t of, I’d have missed and cried worse than Gazza.

If only international referees didn’t confuse bandiness for intentional use of the elbow, he’d have rivalled the records of Greaves, Lineker and Rooney.

 

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